Last week [Irish Times, 28th May 2009] in the Seanad, Senator Eoghan Harris put forward a novel proposal that the Minister for Justice should consider introducing an amnesty for minor offenders currently in prison to mark the release of the Ryan Commission Report. The proposal met with a generally favourable reaction from Senators of all parties, many of whom referred to the urgent problem of prison overcrowding.
The linking of the imprisonment of non-violent offenders with the appalling crimes at the heart of the Ryan Report may at first seem incongruous, but it throws open a number of very interesting parallels.
In the first instance, while the circumstances in which we detain people may have shifted considerably over the years, poverty is a common theme. The children detained in industrial schools were essentially treated as criminals largely because of their poverty. The rightful horror that society is now expressing about this appalling injustice resonates today when it is generally only those who grow up in the most severe poverty that we send to our prisons.
It is also striking that the one section of the Ryan Report that hasn’t received much attention so far is the chapter (volume 3, chapter 11) dealing with the current circumstances of the victims of abuse. The Commission lists the appalling lifetime consequences of abuse for the adult survivors in terms of their adult relationships, employment history and socio-economic standing, as well their physical and mental health. The report doesn’t disclose how many of these victims would later end up in prisons, but we can only assume that a significant number of these damaged people did fall into criminality as a result of their experiences.
The proposal also throws in sharp relief the idiosyncrasies of public morality in Ireland over recent years. This was a period when powerful transgressors, be it in political, financial or clerical institutions of power, have been treated with the greatest generosity by the State. Some would argue that the reluctance to punish their crimes has often bordered on impunity. On the other hand, to call for clemency towards persons convicted of even the more minor of criminal offences has been a definite political taboo.
The full scale of the horrors in our recent past will continue to resonate for a long time to come, but by linking the horrors of the past with the hypocrisies of the present, this proposal raises even more uncomfortable truths about our values as a society.